Descriptive Feedback and Assessment – What my students in Fiji taught me

Many times I’ve heard teachers (and myself) say “students don’t read the comments, they just look at the mark.” I’m not sure why this has taken me so long to connect, but my students in Fiji have taught me something about descriptive feedback. They have taught me that If they have the opportunity to improve, they care. Descriptive feedback in itself is not enough. Assessment practices must also change.

I took 40 students to Fiji for a month (i’m either the craziest or luckiest person in the world – the jury is still out). In addition to learning the ins and outs of the Fijian health care system, my students taught me all about proper assessment. I set up my grade 11 biology course so that students had 10 blog post prompts, 8 labs (some of these were really activities opposed to labs), 3 assignments and a final task. The blog was the core of our ongoing assessment. Students could (and often did) put their assignments and labs up on it as well. Parents and friends could check in and see what they were learning. They had an authentic audience. Many of my “tweeps” and friends commented on student blogs, so I wasn’t the only one providing feedback and pushing student thinking (a HUGE thank you to all those that commented on my student blogs).

I provided my feedback through our class moodle. On the moodle were the blog prompts, success criteria and rubrics. The blog posts were very open-ended and provided lots of choice. The success criteria pointed them to the specific scientific concepts I needed to see their thinking around. I provided some links or examples to information to help them get started (we had no textbook – by choice). When I provided feedback on the moodle I checked off the levels on the rubric and it automatically calculated a mark based on how I set it up. I also provided written feedback usually in the form of stating what they did well and what they needed to do to improve. I provided students the opportunity to fix up their blog posts and resubmit for assessment after. I honestly didn’t think many students would make use of this. Boy was I wrong. Almost every student has made use of this for at least one blog post, some of them for many. They reword, include new components, add new research, etc. to their blog post and then ask me to reassess. Its great.

As we are now back from Fiji and I would like to continue on with my summer and get report cards done, I rushed through one set of blog posts. I simply marked them and made a 3-5 word comment. I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I didn’t think anyone would notice just ONE poorly assessed blog post among many? Well… they did! I got messages saying “I got an XX% and I can see the rubric, but what exactly can I do to improve? The comments just weren’t there”. This has taught me something important. Students DO READ the written feedback and comments. We, as teachers simply need to ENSURE that the opportunity for them to improve upon their work is there. Otherwise they have no need nor way to really process the feedback.

I did not do this resubmit opportunity with the labs and assignments. They were much more “old school” where they had specific questions to ask, or a specific set of genetics problems. Each student was doing the same thing, so the ability to let students resubmit and improve simply wasn’t there. I am now looking at each of those with a very critical eye. How could I have opened up those tasks to allow for growth and personalization? The blog posts were perfect. No two kids had the same posts, rarely even the same topics (except when they co-created them together).

I created this course very specifically to work while on the road in Fiji. I am looking at how many parts of it I could fix up and improve upon. What sticks out mostly in my mind is to open up some of the labs and assignments. Secondly, I need to find a way to have students read each others blog posts more often and provide feedback. Perhaps a feedback form, or maybe simply commenting. We did struggle with internet access on the trip, so that would have to be sorted out as well. But that is a simple challenge.

My students fascinated me throughout the entire trip. The creativity in their blog posts, the connections they made to all aspects of the course, the connections they made to Fiji, how they took responsibility to find the information they needed and asked the questions they needed to understand and how they responded and learned from feedback provided. Aside from spending a month touring an amazing country like Fiji, I learned so much during this month about feedback and assessment practices. I was amazed to watch my students take full responsibility of their own learning. I think the setting may have helped a teeny bit, but ultimately the students took charge.

You can read about our adventures in Fiji here: http://biologyinfiji.edublogs.org . On the left hand side of the page are links to the student blogs.

3D Printed GoPro Snorkel Mask Adapter

 

I’m taking 40 students to Fiji. Some say I’m crazy. Some say I’m the luckiest person in the world. I’ll go with the latter. Part of our program will include coral restoration projects and snorkelling. Students will potentially use video and images of marine life for projects we are doing including plant studies and dichotomous keys.

I decided to bring a GoPro on the trip, but I struggled to find a way to have it usefully attached during snorkelling. After much consideration I realized that someone else must have had this same problem – no company is making a snorkel mask adapter yet.

On thingiverse.com I found this snorkel adapter for the GoPro.  After 3D printing it, I shared pictures of it with my students and as it turns out three of them are bringing GoPro cameras as well and so I printed a few extras.

In school, I believe the purpose and benefit of having a 3D printer is for the design and critical thinking aspect. Students can design, innovate and adapt current designs based on their knowledge of something. This printing of  GoPro mounts required none of that. We simply printed someone else’s design. However, it sure is going to help my students learn biology in Fiji. So, while it may not be the ultimate goal, it sure is a great side effect of having a 3D printer at your disposal. Simply print off parts as needed.


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The importance of sharing. My first mistake already :)

For my grade 11 biology course I am running in Fiji (summer school) I created a pre-trip learning activity. Students were to watch the video Sharkwater if possible. If not, I gave a link to an article about the same topic of illegal shark hunting and finning.

I provided some prompts to students and held an online discussion in our closed course Moodle.

The discussion has been just awesome. Students are demonstrating amazing communication skills, critical thinking skills and are directing their own learning to find out about things we will be learning in our course (genetics, taxonomy, binomial nomenclature, ecology, indicator species, etc.). They are having an excellent debate about the use of force to prevent shark hunting and finning.

The discussion is awesome. The place for the discussion is all wrong. The discussion should have been public. We should have shared. We should have invited others who had seen the video to join in with us.

I have attempted to move the discussion to our class blog here, but it never works to move locations once a discussion like that has already started. I have learned my first lesson about this course already. I have some excellent communicators. I look forward to following their blogs are we travel through Fiji. I look forward to learning from them.

 

Teaching Biology in Paradise

I am incredibly lucky and have landed myself the opportunity to teach Grade 11 and 12 Biology in Fiji this summer. I am setting up the framework for the programs and would love some input from anyone willing to help me plan.

Here is what I have so far:

  • each course will have an online component through Moodle. This will be the “understanding basic concepts” component of the course. This part will basically be lesson content (all in written and video to support most learners) and then a few very straight-forward assignments
    • I will create videos for each lesson so that I can share my passion for the topic, but I will also link to good graphical animations and interactive modules that are already out there.
    • This material will simply cover the bare minimum, the basic “need-to-knows”
    • This material will be available for students way before we leave for Fiji (during which time I will be available via adobe connect or email to help if needed). If I had my way, they’d all get this part out of the way before we left, but that is asking way too much of students likely already in a semester full of courses.
  • In Fiji, we will do all the communication, critical thinking, applying of concepts and inquiry. This will be the “meat” of the course and will include;
    • labs at the University of South Pacific (fruit flies, helping with marine biology research, DNA analysis, etc.)
    • field trips (homeostasis in coastal regions, rainforest for diversity, fisheries for population dynamics, nurseries for plant units, remote villages for population studies, ocean-side resorts for dolphin studies, the local medical school for human biology and homeostasis labs, etc.)
    • interviews with local experts
    • research of local case studies (Fiji-specific flora, fauna, restoration initiatives, evolution studies, diversity studies, etc.)

So, with the learning opportunities starting to come together, I started to ponder how on earth to assess all this. I don’t want to be tied to a classroom in Fiji. So, doing a series of field trips and activities following by tests and strict written reports aren’t going to work.

My current plan is as follows:

  • assess the online learning assignments as a small component of their course work
  • have each student set up a blog
    • for each overall expectation I will provide a few blog prompt options and students can blog about what we’ve learned through various learning opportunities (labs, field trips, research, interviews, etc.). Students will choose which ones to complete and we will conference 1:1 (likely on buses) to ensure they are meeting all the expectations. There will be enough structure for these that the expectations are hit, but be flexible enough to allow students to direct their own learning a bit while in Fiji.
    • students will be encouraged to use media created on-the-go (images, video, audio) along with the written word on their blogs.
    • we will hold “blogger cafe’s” throughout the trip (on the road, in residence, in the airport)
    • we will try to comment on each others postings as much as possible
    • we may invite guest bloggers from Fiji to join us
    • we may write blogs individually, in pairs or in small groups (and cross-post to each students blog)
    • some blogs may take the form of an essay, some may be a narrative, others poetry. We will discuss choosing appropriate forms for purpose.
  • as a final assessment we will do two things
    • write summary reflections on our blogs that wrap up our blogs as a learning portfolio
    • co-create an e-book as a class about “Biology in Fiji”. Students will choose topics that are Fiji-specific and write chapters about these (could be specific flora, fauna, initiatives, issues, etc.). Students will draw on their knowledge of the biology and experiences in Fiji to write these. Again, these could include media components integrated into the e-book as well. My thought is that this will not only help me assess their understanding of concepts and ability to apply their knowledge but also provide students with a great “take-home” from the trip.

So, within that overall framework, I have some work to do in gathering some knowledge of Fiji-specific examples and case studies. I’m very lucky and the company organizing this trip have someone at the University of South Pacific who will be organizing the trips and labs with me. He will set the itinerary and schedule labs. He is currently going around to USP departments and staff to find good learning activities for us that fit within the curriculum.

My questions to anyone willing to help me are;

What would you include?

Do you know of any resources? Case-studies, examples in Fiji?

How can I fine-tune the assessment?

Would you, as a parent, be happy with this balance between “prepping for university” and getting the most out of being in Fiji (experiential)? Remembering that you are paying an arm and a leg for the trip.

Thanks for any input!